Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In order to better understand the views Wordsworth expresses in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, it is helpful to be familiar with Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, The Prelude. In this work, published after his death, Wordsworth describes his genesis as a poet as well as the life experiences that shaped the ideology of poetry that he expresses in the preface. As a child growing up in the Lake District, Wordsworth was particularly sensitive to nature and loved wandering outside by himself or with a few companions. He often felt deeply moved by his experiences in the natural world; many of his poems, such as “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” reveal a deep affection for nature that shaped his poetry. For instance, his love for nature guided him in choosing topics for his poems: in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth reveals that part of the reason he chose to write about the topics of “the common man” was because
in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.
While his love for nature led him to poetry, Wordsworth’s experiences in France during the French Revolution shaped his poetic style and ambitions. The Revolution inspired in him a deep enthusiasm for the ideals of equality, brotherhood, and liberty that animated the revolutionaries; these ideals, in turn, inspired the focus on the lower social classes that would characterize his poetry. While he hoped to encourage greater harmony between the social classes in romanticizing the life of common men, Wordsworth also found their “low and rustic” life to be the ideal subject for poetry, as he explains in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. He writes that he chose this topic because
in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated . . .
Wordsworth and Coleridge not only emphasized the life of the average person in their poems but also sought to imitate the “language really used by men.” In all of this, the two poets set themselves the ambitious goal of changing the subject matter and style of English poetry, and setting in motion a new movement of literature—a movement toward “genuine poetry” that “give[s] other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature” than that of their neoclassicist contemporaries.
Wordsworth’s prediction that he and Coleridge would begin a new movement with Lyrical Ballads was, in some respects, correct: many consider this collection of poetry to be the beginning of Romanticism. Wordsworth’s passion for nature and glorification of the common man are two main characteristics of the Romantic literature. Additionally, Romanticism’s elevation of emotion over reason is demonstrated in Wordsworth’s comparison of the poet to the “Man of Science”:
The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion . . . . [The Poet] is the rock of defence of human nature . . .
In the preface, Wordsworth displays both the immense value he places on poetry and the responsibility he believes poets have to their readers. Because poetry is deeply rooted in human nature and common experience, Wordsworth argues that the emotions championed by the Romantic movement unite people in a way that the truth of the Enlightenment could not. Through his emphasis on common men and his hope to turn upper classes in favor of them, Wordsworth demonstrates his belief that poetry and the emotions expressed in it can change people’s perceptions and thus change society—and that two poets can single-handedly alter the course of English literature.